So Sunday 26 February was a first for me. My first multi-sport race. And I bit off a big one: Xterra Grabouw. The South African Championship event.
Don’t let the picturesque setting fool you. For an Xterra athlete many dark places lurk deep in the pine forests, between the piercing blue sky and the rooibos-tea dam, or out on the white-quartz beach.
The week prior to the event there was a fair amount of freaking out by fellow competitors about the technical rock garden on the mountain bike leg, and the impossible climbs on the run. I thought I had all that covered. But one thing was scaring the bejeesus out of me – the swim.
For most this is a formality. Like pre-screening. The entrance fee to the main event. I heard over and over again that the swim is something you get through, and that the Xterra all happens on the bike and run. For me the swim was the event. If I could get through the swim, the Xterra was in the bag.
I don’t swim. I mean, I can swim, I just don’t. And, as I discovered on Sunday, there’s a big difference between a casual plop in the folk’s pool over Christmas with a beer in hand, and a 1.5km dam swim zipped into a wetsuit with 3000 other elbows flailing at your face.
The start of the swim was intense. As I jogged to the shoreline with my cheerleading squad, consisting of my girlfriend Amanda, I glanced down at my heart rate monitor. 135bpm! And I hadn’t even zipped up the suit yet… or taken a warm-up stroke in the water. I was going to implode before the starter’s gun. I decided then and there to ditch the device. Amanda looked more terrified than me when I tore the strap from around my chest and handed it to her.
“Can’t use this, it’s freaking me out,” I stuttered. “Okay”, she said. “You’ll be fine,” she said, desperately trying not to sound like she was saying goodbye to me forever. Amanda knew the extent of my swimming training: three days of trying to borrow a wetsuit from my triathlon mates, followed by a dedicated 10 lengths of the Sea Point pool to see if it was a fit, three days prior to the big event! To be fair, she had every reason to look as if I was leaving on a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Actually, she probably felt guilt as much as fear. Up until a week prior to the event our roles were supposed to be reversed. Amanda was the one swimming, riding and running around Grabouw. I was the cheer squad. Then, a big fortnight of work, first in Jozi, then in Nairobi, Kenya, meant she wasn’t able to prepare well enough. She knew I’d be a sucker for punishment. So there I was, surrounded by 1500 near-naked people all looking fairly relaxed at the prospect of swimming through the Eikenhof dam abyss.
After swallowing water, losing my goggles twice (once to a kick to the head, and once to a well-placed elbow to the eye-socket), long stretches of breast-stroke, swimming off line into a string of buoys and praying for the feeling of sand and rocks beneath my feet, which would hopefully signify the end of my ordeal, I arrived back on terra firma. 26 minutes of hell had ended. To my surprise, I wasn’t feeling too bad either…
I staggered out of the water, trying to untangle myself from my wetsuit, and tripped into the transition area. I was onto my bike in moments, and tore through fifty riders, happy to be in my element. And that’s when the wheels fell off. After singing the praises of the Carve a week ago, I had a nightmare trying to seal a rear tyre split. My attempted blitz of the mountain bike leg soon turned into a two-and-a-half hour mission that had me begging for tubes, bombs and pumps.
Sadly, I had company in the form of the equally unlucky Luyanda from songo.info, who had hit the mountain bike course in first position (that’s right, ahead of race favourites, Conrad Stoltz, Dan Hugo and Stuart Marais!) thanks to a storming swim from his talented teammate Jodie Swallow. However, his race went to the dogs when a competitor rear-ended him and bent his derailleur so badly we spent 30 minutes on the side of the trail trying to squeeze the back wheel into the dropouts. A big disappointment for the young Luyanda, no doubt. He is one helluva gifted rider and days like this help build champions out of raw talent. To his credit he battled through the course, stopping countless times, and eventually finished the bike leg. He will be back, and on a podium near you soon. Mark my words.
To the backmarkers who saved me and helped Luyanda, thank you. I actually salvaged an enjoyable ride and run, albeit far slower than I had hoped. When it was clear that my race was over, and getting my bike to finish line intact became my sole focus, I was able to soak in the experience. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the course, the dedication of the pros, the attitude of fellow ‘Warriors’ and the energy of the organisers and marshals.
If you haven’t done an Xterra. I’d start planning your assault now. It is a day to pit yourself against friends and the elements like no other. I’m looking forward to making Grabouw a regular fixture in my event calendar… and Amanda’s.
Now, to start swimming more…
Big thanks to Oakpics for the great photos…